What was happening within the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century? Reform efforts were not limited to the Protestant movement, but also took place within the Church of Rome. Historians question whether these reform efforts in the Catholic Church were merely a reaction against the Protestant Reformation (a counter-reformation) or initiatives that came about on their own, “a general revival of Catholic piety with few thoughts of Protestantism.” Many scholars now recognize that in fact both elements were at play, and that it is appropriate to speak of both the Catholic Counter-Reformation as well as simply the Catholic Reformation. Over the next two days we will explore one of the most significant forces for reform in the Catholic Church, Ignatius Loyola and the religious order he founded, the Jesuits.
Born in Spain in 1491, Ignatius was part of a very wealthy family. His early life was spent advancing his military career. In 1521, Ignatius was fighting for Spain in the battle of Pamplona when he was seriously wounded. During his recovery, he was given material to read on the life of Christ. Ignatius decided to end his military career and became a priest.
In his autobiography, Ignatius describes his conversion and calling. Writing in the third person, he says, “Up to his twenty-sixth year he was a man given over to the vanities of the world, and took a special delight in the exercise of arms.” After he was wounded and recovering from his injury, Ignatius describes what happened next: They gave him a life of Christ and a book of the lives of the saints in Spanish. By the frequent reading of these books he conceived some affection for what he found there narrated. Pausing in his readings, he gave himself up to thinking over what he had read. At other times he dwelled on the things of the world which formerly had occupied his thoughts. . . . . In reading of the life of our Lord and the lives of the saints, he paused to think and reason with himself, “Suppose that I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did.”
What were the key influences in Ignatius’ spiritual journey? Ignatius used and developed a “course of discipleship” that was later given the name Spiritual Exercises. The exercises called for meditation and prayer over a four-week period. The hope was that these exercises would “help the reader purify his will in order to obey God more purely and willingly.” As with Luther, spiritual encounters led him to seek reform but “where Luther had been drawn away from the Catholic Church by his Christian pilgrimage, Loyola was drawn deeper into the church.”
The Impact of Ignatius
Ignatius founded the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus, in 1540. Ignatius and his companions had committed themselves to the service of the church years before, saying if their original plans to go to Jerusalem were thwarted they would present themselves to the pope, “asking him to make use of them wherever he thought it would be more to God’s glory and the good of souls.” What a powerful and bold desire! Because their plans to go to Jerusalem did not work out, work began toward the formation of a new monastic order, the Society of Jesus. With a commitment to both contemplation and action, as we will explore more tomorrow, the Jesuits were “the greatest single force in Catholicism’s campaign to recapture the spiritual domains seized by Protestants.”
Reflect again on Ignatius’ words, “Suppose that I should do what St. Francis did, what St. Dominic did.” Who are the men and women of faith that inspire you? How do their lives call you into greater action and obedience?
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